The national headquarters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon is requiring all of its members to undergo diversity training in response to a recent controversy in which the fraternity’s Oklahoma University chapter was filmed reciting a racist chant on a bus to a social function. This reaction is all-too-typical in higher education. Jamal Watson notes in Diverse Issues in Higher Education that such programs are “often implemented in response to a polarizing incident on campus, like the discovery of a noose, a swastika or anti-gay epithets scribbled across a bathroom stall.”
But, is diversity training remotely effective in combating racism? Or is it merely a band-aid attempting to heal a much deeper wound of socioeconomic disparity?
Evidence from the workplace suggests the latter. A 2007 Harvard University study reviewing 829 companies’ diversity training over 31 years found the programs had “no positive effects in the average workplace.” In fact, the study even found negative effects on management diversity in firms “where training is mandatory or emphasizes the threat of lawsuits.”
How could training aimed at combating racism do the exact opposite of its intended aim? Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman strategy, provides an answer in the Harvard Business Review. Recalling an investigation he conducted for a major media company about their workplace diversity, he explains how the firm’s sensitivity training went awry:
The scenarios quickly became the butt of participant jokes. And, while the information was sound, it gave people a false sense of confidence since it couldn’t possibly cover every single situation.
The second training — the one that categorized people — was worse. Just like the first training, it was ridiculed, ironically in ways that clearly violated the recommendations from the first training. And rather than changing attitudes of prejudice and bias, it solidified them.
“Diversity training doesn’t extinguish prejudice,” Bregman is left to conclude. “It promotes it.”
Having attended two mandatory diversity trainings throughout my educational career, I can attest to this fact. At my first one in high school, students were segregated into groups based on race and asked to write out a list of racial slurs for their group they deem offensive. As a naive 15-year-old, it was at this training that I first learned many such slurs for Asians, African-Americans, and Hispanics. Later on in the day, the instructor asserted that, “only white people can be racist,” supposedly because the struggles other ethnicities have undergone justifies any animosity they may hold.
Millions of millennials can likely attest to similar stories, particularly on the last point of singling out whites. As Jennifer Ng observed in a University of Kansas report on privilege theory, “White students quite commonly deny their involvement in a racist society by pointing out that they were never slave owners.” And why should they confess to perpetuating racism if they themselves have never acted racist? Ng speculates, “I doubt students would feel any more comfortable with being asked to personally identify or theoretically associate themselves with the deeds or feelings of colonizers or Nazis.”
Herein lies the ultimate shortcoming of diversity training programs: they belittle participants by assuming that they are ignorant of the basic social decorum not to act racist that most have been taught all their lives. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of socioeconomic disparity — poverty, a failing public education system, occupational licensing, mandatory minimums, the minimum wage — diversity training gives the false impression that racism can be solved simply by “raising awareness” (whatever that means). If only it were that simple.